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Labor advocates want to ensure protections for immigrants who speak out about workplace conditions

The push comes after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a memo stating it would end mass immigration enforcement operations at workplaces and shift to enforcement efforts against employers who exploit workers.

Community groups celebrate immigrant worker protections expected to be implemented next month by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Community groups celebrate immigrant worker protections expected to be implemented next month by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Labor advocates in Chicago are urging federal officials to publish enforceable guidelines that will protect immigrants who speak up about workplace safety hazards.

“Workers are and continue to be scared to speak up about unsafe working conditions over fear of retaliation from their employers,” said Marcos Ceniceros, the associate director of Warehouse Workers for Justice, at a news conference Thursday outside of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Chicago office. “Unsafe working conditions like poor to no training, no PPE, poor safety protocols, infected co-workers without letting them know and much more.”

Their push comes weeks before federal agencies are expected to publish updated guidelines and policies about how to protect immigrant workers who speak out about workplace issues. Ceniceros said they would like to see “strong firewalls” that will prevent immigration agents from ignoring the updated guidelines.

He and other labor advocates Thursday said that they still hear from workers who fear employers will call ICE if they speak out.

Community groups celebrate immigrant worker protections expected to be implemented next month by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Community groups celebrate immigrant worker protections expected to be implemented next month by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

In October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a memo stating it would end immigration enforcement operations at workplaces and shift to enforcement efforts against employers who exploit workers.

“These employers engage in illegal acts ranging from the payment of substandard wages to imposing unsafe working conditions and facilitating human trafficking and child exploitation,” the memo stated.

The memo also called on federal agencies such as ICE, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to present in December recommendations and updated policies to alleviate the fears of victims and witnesses of labor trafficking and exploitation.

Fasika Alem, from the United African Organization, said more protections for immigrant workers could have prevented the death of Adewale Ogunyemi, who died this past summer in a workplace accident.

“Immigrant workers like him need an outlet for workers to report workplace issues in order to not only prevent tragedies like this, but also to protect the basic rights that all workers deserve,” Alem said.

The Will County coroner’s office confirmed their office was investigating the death of Oguynyemi, but it did not immediately have further details about the death.

Genoveva Ramirez, 71, of Berwyn, has worked for 13 years at a cleaning company. And while she has never received direct threats at work regarding her immigration status, she said the end of immigration enforcement operations at workplaces is a welcomed relief.

Ramirez had spoken out in the past about her immigration case, and she was granted “deferred action,” in 2017.

“It’s a big relief for families because you work more peaceful knowing ICE won’t show up for a raid like it did when people were taken away,” Ramirez said. “It’s a big relief for families and their children.”

Community groups celebrate immigrant worker protections expected to be implemented next month by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Community groups celebrate immigrant worker protections expected to be implemented next month by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.